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Three trends tackling manufacturing’s challenging labour market

Author : Steve Tonks, SVP EMEA at WorkForce Software

16 September 2022

Labour shortages are a perennial problem in manufacturing. By 2030, estimates point to a shortage of eight million workers. To recruit and retain vital talent, manufacturers must adapt or risk becoming obsolete.

Just as other industries have embraced new ways of working, so must manufacturing. And, in today’s digital landscape, this means exploring technological innovation through data and connectivity, to better support the changing needs of workers. 

Manufacturers are increasingly exploring digitalisation in the form of smart factories. That same thirst for digital innovation must be applied to workforce management. Here, we explore three emerging trends delivering the workplace evolution that will ensure manufacturing keeps pace with employee expectations, attracting talent back to the production line. 

Trend #1: Accelerating smart factory initiatives to power people-focused outcomes
Much has been written about how Smart Factories, utilising AI, cloud computing, and connected IoT devices can improve efficiency, optimise production, streamline operating procedures and even deliver greener, more sustainable practices. This vision of Industry 4.0, enabled and empowered by AI, rich data analytics and digital automation, is already being realised. 
Smart factory approaches have been shown to deliver an average of 10-12 percent improvement in labour productivity, factory capacity utilisation, and manufacturing output. 

However, this misses one vital thread that could pull people, technology and processes together to deliver beyond productivity. Such digital technologies can also be harnessed to dramatically improve the whole employee experience. This goes beyond simply ensuring maximum productivity. 

Teams must have access to the information necessary for them to perform in their roles, as well as just-in-time training and scheduling reminders, to ensure they feel supported and engaged, as valued colleagues, not just as another set of machines. 

A modern workforce management system analyses everyday employee data to better understand the workforce's productivity, needs, and challenges. Just as smart factory technologies impact the production line, using smart workforce management technologies empowers manufacturers to have better visibility of their employees and respond to them in timely and impactful ways. For example, it facilitates an easier way for workers to communicate with their employers, allowing them to monitor their employee data, request time-off, receive to-do checklists and many other role-supportive functions. 

It all comes back to using all means possible to create a positive employee experience, not only to retain existing employees but to attract prospective workers, making your organisation an employer of choice.
Trend #2: Adjusting operations and supply chains
The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the usual cycles of supply and demand, production, and distribution. In addition, fluctuating numbers of key workers due to illness and the so-called Great Resignation have made it difficult to keep production and transport on schedule. In response, 75 percent of manufacturers worldwide plan to fight this by reshoring (bringing operations closer together geographically) and localising supply lines. 

This points to the need for organisations to be agile and responsive to changing demands and global environments. Such agility can only be achieved when teams are ready and supported to pivot at a moment’s notice. 

For today’s employees, who value flexibility and open communication, it is essential that when they are asked to adapt, employers offer quid pro quo in terms of enhanced scheduling and communication channels. 

Manufacturers can adapt to change and battle short staffing with enhanced scheduling abilities to assure shifts are filled with qualified workers. At the same time, these tools can enable greater flexibility for employees. 

Digital communication abilities allow for real-time process changes and streamlined two-way dialogue with workers who are often 'deskless'. And, with advanced analytics in labour forecasting, optimising the use of labour to meet demand is good for businesses and employees. 

Trend #3: Brain drain and skill deficits
It is not just people willing to work in manufacturing who are in short supply. Those that do are increasingly lacking the skills the industry needs most. Alongside labour shortages, closing the skills gap is a seemingly constant challenge in this industry. As the talent pools shrink, 57 percent of manufacturing leaders say they lack skilled workers to support plans to implement smart manufacturing.

Part of the issue is that training is too often seen as a costly process, both in terms of time and money. Moreover, many standard training methods are inefficient, with many employees forgetting most of the content within six months of undertaking training. 

With digital workforce management tools, new training materials can be provided at any time to employees and sent directly to their personal devices. Whether brand new workers or seasoned professionals looking for a tune-up of their skills, these in-the-moment, micro-training opportunities provide workers with the tools to troubleshoot any obstacles that may interfere with their work. 

This won’t solve the entirety of the skills issue, but can go a long way in ensuring that your employees are supported to be effective, safe, and productive, with access to the resources they need. 

A revolution in the deskless experience 
Amid so many challenges, one of the greatest obstacles to delivering heightened employee experiences to manufacturing workers is that they are often dispersed and deskless. Unlike white-collar roles, they are not in front of a computer at a fixed location. For too long, there has been an experience gap between those in office roles and those providing vital deskless services. Deskless workers need a different, more creative approach to ensure they are engaged. 

This is where digital technologies are closing the experience gap. As manufacturers progress toward smart manufacturing, the opportunities digitalisation can bring to workers must be integrated as part of a strategy of holistic innovation. Where digital technologies meet human talent, the future is created - no matter the industry or workplace. 

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